Friday, September 30, 2011

The Front Page and Those That Follow

Tomorrow begins my immersion into the world of horror movies, so I really wanted to get this post in before that happens. I noticed that Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were in a version of The Front Page in the '70s and because I love Matthau, I immediately put it on my queue. That directed me to the original filmed version of the play from 1931. Knowing that His Girl Friday is based on the same material, I thought it might be interesting to watch all three and see how they compare to each other. It's kind of like what I did with Psycho and House, but less esoteric and the same basic script. The Front Page was also adapted as Switching Channels in 1988 with Burt Reynolds, Kathleen Turner, and Christopher Reeve, but it looked dreadful, so I passed.

The Front Page ('31)
I haven't found any support of this, but I'd imagine this version is basically the play put on screen with some minor tweaks here and there. Lewis Milestone directs with considerable panache given that sound came to film in a major way only four years prior (in The Front Page '74, Matthau grabs a star off of an All Quiet on the Western Front poster. Even though that film takes place in 1929 and AQotWF came out in 1930, the anachronism pays tribute to Milestone and is appreciated). There are some impressive walking and talking scenes and an amazing scene where the camera whip pans up and down to different reporters' faces. I've never seen that particular camera move before and am pretty surprised that no one has paid homage to it to my knowledge.

The opening credits are done in the form of a newspaper with pictures of the cast to coincide, which is fairly obvious, but still pretty sweet. It would be a cool prop to have. My biggest problem with this film is that, at least with the Instant View version, the dialogue is nearly impossible to understand. I know the film is funny because I hear a lot of punchlines and throwaway lines, but they all come out of context so they don't have as much impact. I don't know if it's because they were still having trouble recording dialogue that early in sound production or if the master simply had bad sound (I tend to think the latter). Basically, watching this version of the film made me want to watch the play (a feeling that never went away). I can't be too hard on the film, especially after watching the two remakes because I know the source material is good and that the acting was fine. And really, can you get too rough on a film from 1931 that has a character flip off a judge? This film also has one of the greatest final lines ever, which is repeated in the '74 remake and no less funny.

His Girl Friday ('40)

This is a weird trailer. 

His Girl Friday is easily the best of these three versions of The Front Page. It was very astute of director Howard Hawkes to realize that it wasn't a great leap to make Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns former lovers. They already have that sort of antogonistic/admiring relationship. The change of Hildy from a male to a female gives the material another level of conflict and unpredictability. And if there's one thing the material already did well, it was conflict and unpredictability. I've never seen so many roadblocks thrown up so fast that prevent people from getting what they want. The script, and all credit must go to the original by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, is a marvel. I suppose giving Charles Lederer (who did additional dialogue on the '31 version and wrote The Thing from Another World), some credit is also due.

Whereas the original starts with an opening title stating that the film takes place in a "Mythical Kingdom," His Girl Friday pours on the snark telling us that surely there are no newspaper men like the ones depicted. Because Hildy and Walter are now exes, more time is spent with them and on their relationship, which is great because Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell play off of each other so well. Also, Walter Burns may be one of the greatest characters ever created. He's conniving and dastardly and charismatic in all versions and it's incredibly fun just to watch him lie to people. Watching him put Hildy's fiance, Bruce, into awkward situation after awkward situation and Bruce having no idea what is going on is endlessly rewarding. Ralph Bellamy does great work being the nice guy caught in the middle of something much bigger than him that he can't understand.

Due to the refiguring of Hildy and the relationship with Walter, adjustments to the original needed to be made and it's fun to see how they incorporated stuff that could have otherwise been left out. The stolen watch gag gets put in the middle of the film (and pretty much any time Bruce gets arrested is a version of the watch gag). In both this and the '79 remake, whenever there are lists of things or locations and jobs mentioned, basically any time a joke isn't driving the plot (like when Walter is telling Duffy what to move around to fit the new story in the paper), it feels like the screenwriter viewed it as his time to shine and came up with new, funny stuff to say ("Take Hitler and stick him in the funny pages!"). There's really almost not enough time to laugh for fear of missing something else entirely since the it's so dialogue heavy. In fact, all three films feature virtually no score. I'd imagine it's because they want to keep the focus on the dialogue.

The Front Page ('74)

I like Billy Wilder, but like many directors, the older he got, the more his work suffered. His version of The Front Page isn't bad because it's hard to screw up the source material (*ahem*), but his film is pretty listless stylistically. Most of the scenes just sit there and there's nothing filmically that matches the pace of the dialogue. The 1931 version is more interesting visually than this film. The framing, camera moves, and editing are all lethargic. It almost feels like Wilder had given up. I also hoped that it would be updated for the '70s and tackle some of the politics of the time (*cough*), but I understand why they didn't since newspapers weren't quite as important as they used to be.

The biggest change to the other films is that there is quite a bit of cursing. Now, I'm all for cursing. There is a lot of humor to be mined from strategically placed swears, but the way the original and His Girl Friday handle cursing is so much funnier. Instead of having characters blatant spout out swears, they react to unheard filth on the phone among other things. For example:
Oh, good evening madam. Now listen, you ten-cent glamour girl. You can't keep Butch away from his duty!... What's that?... You say that again, I'll come over there and kick you in the teeth!... Say, what kind of language is that? Now look here you
The other major difference is that Wilder tried to "open up" the film a bit more. Instead of spending most of the time in small rooms, we venture out into the halls of the building, into a theater, jail, and to a train station. I've never understood the need to try to make a play expansive (I fall under the Sidney Lumet school of thought on the subject). The material should dictate the camera and locations. It's not a
detriment to the film, but feels like it's hiding the like of interesting direction. It also results in a loss of the panic and claustrophobia once things really amp up.

Some other things it does worse that the other films (and again, it's still quite entertaining) are the casting of Molly and the portrayal of "murderer" Earl Williams. Carol Burnett plays Molly screamingly over-the-top and it's very distracting. Apparently, she wasn't very happy with her performance, either. Earl, on the other hand, is supposed to be meek and weak, but is played almost like Woody Allen here. He's got zingers and one-liners and a general apathy towards his situation. It doesn't really fit a character who's going to be hanged on trumped up charges.

So yeah, no surprised that the classic is the best of the bunch, but it was a lot of fun to watch the films in succession. It's a testament to the material that it never once got boring watching basically the same story unfold three times in a row. I can only dream about writing dialogue as quick and witty as Hecht, MacArthur, and all the others. Probably the biggest lesson I've taken from this experience is that I wish Walter Matthau was in every movie.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

How Long Until Next Season?

I never really thought that the season would get worse than the first two weeks. And through the summer, I was confident it wouldn't (also, sorry Braves). But a shit-storm came in September and the pitching, hitting, and defense all shut down. 7 - 20 record. It wouldn't even matter that much right now if the Yankees hold on to their 7-0 lead through seven whole innings (I'm convinced the Yankees tanked on purpose because they didn't want to risk playing the Sox in the playoffs. That's what I'm telling myself, anyway). We'd be going to a playoff, not that my confidence is that high that the Sox would turn things around for that game, or the playoffs had they made it. And that's gets to the crux of what I want to talk about.

Blowing a 9-game Wild Card lead (and losing any hope in taking the division) sucks, but that's not what's making me sad. In Boston, most people are moving on to the Patriots (many probably did a few weeks ago), then the Celtics, then the Bruins. The only sport I care about is baseball. Instead of getting another month of passion and watching my team try to win a championship, I have to wait until next April to watch them play a game that matters. Watching the Rays and their fans celebrate after the walk-off homerun in the 12th, sure I was depressed, but how can that sort of unbridled enthusiasm not make you a little happy? And that's the exact thing that I'll be missing. I'll watch the playoffs and enjoy them. I have teams I'm pulling for (Rays, Tigers, Brewers, and Phillies, in that order). But I won't be emotionally invested in the games.

I'm also not going to get too upset about the whole thing. I could be a Cubs fan. The oldest person in the world (115 years old) might remember the last time they won a World Series, but few others do. Or I could be a Pirates fan who haven't had a winning record since 1992 and, before that, lost three consecutive National League Championship Series. At least the Sox give me something to root for late in the season.

I'm sad that I won't have the chance to watch the games with my friends who are fans of other playoff bound teams. I'm sad that I don't get to listen to Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy goof off in the booth. But mostly, I'm sad that I won't be able to watch the team I love play until next year.

Monday, September 26, 2011

(Another) Weird Al Post: Alpocalypse

I bought Weird Al's "Alpocalypse" the other week (on vinyl*!). After my first listen, I was sully prepared to talk about what a weak and lazy effort it is, especially coming off of the amazing "Straight Outta Lynwood." However, a few more listens have softened that opinion, much to my delight. It's still got its share of drivel, but there are some pleasant surprises.

I still kind of stand by my "lazy" assertion (so... kneel by it?). Of the twelve songs on "Alpocalpyse," four of them deal with crappy, pseudo-current, pop culture-ish issues: TMZ, Craigslist, Ringtone, and Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me. He's not singing anything that hasn't been said before about any of these subjects and I doubt that any of these songs will be the definitive word, either (though Ringtone is a kind of fun Queen-y pastiche and Craiglist does a good job on The Doors with Ray Manzarek on keyboard!). I think it's fairly clear that I prefer Weird Al when he's free to just be weird and not necessarily concerned with modern culture (a strange assertion  given the man makes his career of to pop parodies and homages).

A big problem Weird Al faces that affected my first listen is that the pop music he is parodying simply isn't that good. As far as first impressions go, the music is foregrounded whereas the lyrics aren't really noticed. So on songs like TMZ, Perform This WayAnother Tattoo, and Party in the CIA, you're stuck with some pretty terrible music and it's hard to make oneself fight the uphill battle towards appreciation (not that they all deserve appreciation). And even though Perform This Way is easily the worst of the bunch, I can't help but smile when I here it because the music video is so damn disturbing.

The exception, and a notable one at that, is Whatever You Like, a parody of a T.I. song of the same name. As usual, he nails the genre while totally mocking the extravagance and boisterousness typically associated with hip-hop. If it wasn't for CNR, Whatever You Like would be the highlight of "Alpocaplypse." Associated with this problem is that, for the first time ever, I don't recognize half of the songs on his polka. In fact, I only recognize two in the whole song by ear and about half if I look at the list of songs featured. Still, kudos for the name of the song: Polka Face. And you can never really go wrong with a polka.

The only other songs I haven't talked about are Skipper Dan and If That Isn't Love which both fall squarely into Weird Al's several wheelhouses. Skipper Dan is about shattered dreams and unmet expectations mixing peppy music with a harsh reality. If That Isn't Love is a pseudo-love song based around low expectations. But even at his worst, Weird Al is able to turn an inspired phrase that almost makes the bad songs worthwhile (example from Another Tattoo: "Check out this Boba Fett... he's playing clarinet!").

I don't know if it's who Weird Al decided to parody, but for the first time ever I questioned who he's making the music for. Obviously, it's for his dedicated fans and, as White and Nerdy showed, he occasionally gets some crossover appeal, but is there a lot of crossover between Weird Al fans and Taylor Swift fans? Most of his parodies on "Alpocalypse" I wouldn't recognize as parodies. Am I just out of touch? Does it even matter if the source is known as long as the song is entertaining? The polka is still awesome, but it's more fun when one recognizes the songs in that context. Otherwise, he may as well be making up his own lyrics. Regardless, "Alpocalype" is still fun and while not his best, there's some gold in that thar hill.

*Seriously, any new release vinyl should come with a free digital download. I can't believe that hasn't caught on with everyone yet. Neither "Alpocalypse" or Bill Callahan's "America" came with one. Do the companies releasing these albums not understand how most music is received these days? That even though people who buy vinyl like it, they still like the ability to take the music with them?

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Horror Creep

October is almost here and already my queue is filling up with horror movies. Once October arrives, there will be no respite, much to my girlfriend's dismay.

Mount up!

The Naked City -- Jules Dassin
I hold in my mind an image of Criterion of infallibility. That their taste in movies is impeccable and everything they put out is worth my time. I know that this isn't the case, but they do such good work that it's hard not to think that. I'm sure that there are people who like The Naked City. They like the fact that the producer, Mark Hellinger, narrates the whole thing in the most annoying way possible, negating the whole "show, don't tell" model of filmmaking (he died shortly after a preview screening, so I choose to believe Dassin didn't want to disrespect the man by removing the voiceover). I found it to be incredibly off-putting and took me right out of the film. Who cares about the murder? This bastard keeps talking in my ear! Fortunately, I know Dassin has made some awesome movies (Rififi, Night and the City), so I won't stay away from his films. I'd just never recommend this one (though the ending is a pretty sweet set piece on the Brooklyn Bridge).

Dagon -- Stuart Gordon
Stuart Gordon has dipped into the H.P. Lovecraft well numerous times (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dreams in the Witch House from the TV series "Masters of Horror"). I'm not the biggest fan of Re-Animator, though I know many who love it. From Beyond rules and Dreams in the Witch House was good for the standards of MoH. Dagon had the potential to be something great. Despite itself, there's a lot of cool stuff going on with people turning into sea-beings. Clearly, budget held Gordon back. But even more than that, casting is the biggest issue. You can almost hear Gordon crying out for Jeffrey Combs to de-age 20 years and star in this. There's a low-rent actor trying to emulate Combs, but failing miserably. The other glaring problem is that Dagon isn't directed with much style. I don't know what happened to Gordon since the '80s (I'd imagine working on low-budget genre movies with little more than cult success can get one down), but there's no energy on screen. Much like House, give this movie to Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson, or Guillermo del Toro and it can come alive. I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't terrible, but disappointed it wasn't better.

I'm pretty sure at 4:40 he's channeling Stephen King.

Wordplay -- Patrick Creadon
This is probably the best of the "documentaries about games/hobbies" movies I've seen. I'm in awe of how fast these people can do incredibly hard puzzles and can't even attempt the Monday NY Times Crossword without thinking about how bad I'm doing compared to these people. Not only are the people competing mind-blowing, but it walks you through the making of a puzzle. I can't even imagine being that smart or clever. The only knock I have against the movie is that the 20-year old contestant reminds me of Michael Rapaport and that's never a good thing.

Charley Varrick -- Don Siegel
Walter Matthau is the man. I don't know why we don't have any actors like him or Ernest Borgnine or Warren Oates anymore. Versatile actors who aren't necessarily pretty, but can own the screen. Paul Giamatti is good, but I can't see him as a badass. Charley Varrick is a crop duster/bank robber who accidentally steals money from a bank storing mob money and the mob wants it. Joe Don Baker is amazing as the man sent to look for the money. The man has no ethics and is a thrill to watch. It's a bit of a cat-and-mouse situation, but I get a kick out of watching Varrick act so logical about everything, even when it's difficult. This is a great movie you may not have heard of but it's available on Instant View. And just like in Dirty Harry, Andrew Robinson is terrible in this movie, too.

The Swarm -- Irwin Allen

House II -- Ethan Wiley
The Horror Show (House III) -- James Isaac

Dracula A.D. 1972 -- Alan Gibson
Like most Hammer Horror films, I'm happy this exists. I love the set design and the vibe of the whole thing. I love the artwork that goes along with it. I love how much cleavage the studio brought into the world. But in the end, the movies are just OK. Not enough was done to show Dracula in 1972. Most of the time, he's still in an old castle or church in the country, so it doesn't feel like modern day. If more had been done to bring Dracula into this culture, I think the film could have been a lot better. Still, I enjoy spending my time with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, so I can never be too hard on these films.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

It's Bad Enough They're Called the Miami Marlins now...

There have been some bad decisions made regarding MLB team logos and uniforms (though the Astros hats are pretty sweet):

There have been some benign, but pointless changes in uniforms (seriously, the first logo is brilliant and I didn't notice is was and "M" and a "B" until I was in college:

And there have been some changes that feel like the team should be playing a different sport (seriously, the new one looks like the Blue Jays are a football team now):

But I'm pretty sure I've never seen anything has hideous as this leaked but supposed Miami Marlins logo

Marlins Logo

Sure, Florida Marlins never really had a great look to begin with:

but their new logo looks like a Marlin leaping over a mountain range in some horrible Technicolor nightmare. I can't imagine what the uniform will look like (oh wait... yes I can). Doesn't MLB have any say in the matter? Don't the players who have to wear the unis? Judging by the first pictures I posted, I'm going to say no. Playing baseball in Miami just got a whole lot more depressing (provided this is the new logo. Maybe the "leak" is designed to get feedback without putting forth any effort).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The House Series

Five months ago (to the day!), I watched all four Psycho movies and wrote about the experience. I'm not entirely happy with the way it turned out, mostly because it just feels like I was live-Tweeting the whole thing. This time, instead of writing while I watched the House series, I just took notes, so hopefully everything comes out better. Truth be told, I didn't even realize there was a House series (aside from the TV show). I knew there was a sequel (with an awesome subtitle), but that was it. Since I just got the sequel from Netflix, I decided to rewatch the first and just fell into another movie marathon. Once again, I've got to give props to Movie Madness for having House IV on VHS. Movie Madness: For When You Need to See Every Movie.

What's amazing about the above trailer is how it doesn't get the movie's tone at all. House is the story of a horror, Roger Cobb (the Greatest American Hero himself, William Katt), with a tortured past (Vietnam vet, his son died, his TV star wife divorced him) who moves into his Aunt's old house after she dies so he can have some peace while he writes his Vietnam memoirs. We find all of this out in the first fifteen minutes of the film. Yeah... it's jam-packed with information. We see flashbacks of his son's drowning and Vietnam flashbacks as he writes. Flashbacks are one of the few things that all for House films have in common (the others: Sean Cunningham produces, Henry Manfredini does the score, and Kane Hodder does stunts).

Once all of the setup is out of the way, House is pretty damn fun. It's based on a story by Fred Dekker (Monster Squad!) annd it's a lot funnier than I remembered. If it had someone with the style of Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson at the helm instead of Steve Miner, it could be in the pantheon of great horror comedies if not great horror movies. William Katt isn't the best lead, but he does enough. Most of the credit can be distributed in three places: George Wendt, Richard Moll, and the monsters.

Wendt first. The man is a comedic powerhouse. After a scene in which Katt runs from the house in army gear and slides across the walkway to his house arms in the air, Wendt (who, for some reason, walked his dog into his neighbor's yard to have it go to the bathroom) comments to his dog, "Writing looks like fun, huh?" Another great line is, "Solitude's always better with someone else around." And When Wendt gets mislead into helping Katt catch a monster, his reaction is gold. Clearly, casting for House II recognized this as they cast John Ratzenberger for a small role to capture some more of that Cheers magic.

Richard Moll, better known as Bull on Night Court, plays the main villain (or the "boss" of the movie). Not only is he the ghost responsible for tormenting Katt, but Katt was in Vietnam with the man and wouldn't put him out of his misery, leaving Moll (Big Ben in the film) to be captured, tortured, and killed. He's psychotic as a man in the rinky-dink Vietnam flashbacks (clearly they had no money for those sets) and he's terrifying and sinister as the ghost.

Which brings me to the monsters. I love practical effects and even though everything is very clearly rubber, that doesn't make it any less fun or scary and, in fact, fits the tone of House very well. And the first monster we see really sucks the viewer into the world, waiting to see what's next.

The house is malicious and even though the result of the haunting really doesn't make any sense, the house does some awesome trippy things. My favorite is the lawn tools that stalk Katt. The film also gets a bit of mileage out of mirrors, but I won't say how. I'll just say I appreciated the effort.

I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that it's a happy ending with the family back together again. I wouldn't say anything at all, but come House IV, it's going to be an issue.

House is a near-classic, must-see horror comedy. I appreciated it much more upon second viewing. There's so much good in it that its easy to forgive the fact that the story really doesn't make too much sense. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the remaining films.

Still brought to us by New World Pictures (Roger Corman rules!), but this House II is nothing like House. The trailer does a better job of capturing the tone of the film (and misses the fact that Bill Maher is in it), but it doesn't feel like a sequel. I think they had a script that featured a house, came up with the epic subtitle (The Second Story) and through it together. I'm actually all for films where it's a different movie under the same umbrella (like what John Carpenter wanted to do with Halloween), but House isn't broad enough subject to do it. House II has more in common with the Waxwork series than the first House (which has an awesome tag line in and of itself: Ding Dong. You're Dead). And yes, Waxwork was released after House II. And yes, the Waxwork series also veers off in an unrelated direction with its sequel.

The score for House II is an improvement from the first, which wasn't bad, it just wasn't that memorable. As mentioned, Bill Maher makes an appearance with Amy Yasbeck (Wings) and John Ratzenberger (who is featured far more prominently in the trailer than the film... and they use his best line). Ratzenberger is easily the highlight of the film and I can't believe it took Pixar to keep casting him in stuff. The man knows how to deliver a line (even he couldn't save Motel Hell, though).

There's a lot of convoluted mumbo jumbo about how a crystal skull can give someone eternal life and there's a bunch of historical time periods that pop up in rooms of the house to try to get the skull back. Gramps is wacky and fun-loving and the type of old person The Simpsons make fun of. There's really nothing in common with House except that they both take place in a house. House II isn't scary and I don't really think it's meant to be. It's an adventure movie, which is fine, except the subtitle "The Second Story" not only implies it's going to be the same house, but a continuation of the first story. You may enjoy it more knowing that it's nothing like the original, but realizing that killed House II for me.

That's right. This one isn't really called House III. It's The Horror Show, and a more unoriginal, unappealing name couldn't be found. At least, unlike House II, this one isn't a sequel or even a part of the series, but because it features a house that gets haunted (kind of), it was billed as a sequel in foreign markets. Gone are the Cheers cast members and the humor. Instead we have Lance Henriksen, normally awesome but not here, as a cop who is tortured by a man he caught and was eventually electrocuted (in a pretty cool scene). Once again, a man with a traumatic past is haunted by something in it, but this haunting isn't confined to a House. This film actually owes a lot to the Nightmare on Elm Street Series, especially through the finale. There's lots of "is this real" stuff and a lot of bad guy quipping. It's humorous that it feels like one Wes Craven creation since the story of an electrocuted man come back to kill is exactly the same as Craven's Shocker released the same year (and, oh yes, that is A.D. Skinner himself, Mitch Pileggi).

I don't get movies like this where the bad guy seems to have control as to whether he comes back as a ghost or not. Isn't there punishment in the afterlife? Plus, the explanation for how to kill him is completely absurd. Electricity turned him into a ghost, so it will bring him back? At the very least, The Horror Show has some tension, which is more than I can say about House II. There's a little homage to Videodrome which I didn't understand until I learned that the director views David Cronenberg as a mentor. The film is a mess with little making sense in the end. Not scary enough for a horror film. Not bad enough to laugh at.

Four Houses, four houses. Roger Cobb is back, which is silly because the House series has no connecting tissue and because if we're bringing Cobb back, why not send him to the original house instead of one we've never encountered before (though we get a glimpse of what is supposed to be the original swimming pool). Even worse, he has a daughter instead of a son and a new wife. So, maybe he didn't get back together with his wife at the end of the first. And maybe she has the son. We're not even going to mention that there is a past? Then why include him at all? Nothing in the story needs Roger Cobb to return except to make the film seem related to the original. It's horseshit.

Once again, the house is... kind of haunted? There's some Native American mysticism that I can't figure out because for some reason the house attacks Cobb's wife even though it should be happy because she's keeping the house. There's an evil step-brother who wants to develop the property (what a hackneyed and cliched plot point). There's a really weird midget in a wheelchair who hacks up a lot of phlegm and is out of a different movie completely (I almost want to say David Lynch's Dune). For some reason, the FBI are involved in this house. There are no monsters. Still no humor. I don't know why you bring William Katt back at all if there's going to be no relation in theme or story to the original aside from trying to hook viewers. Honestly, there are only two good aspect about this movie and they is the bug and snake costumes. The rest is horseshit.

So, there you go. Four movies, unrelated, yet part of the same series. It's a lesson in brand management, I guess, except I don't know how high the House stock ever got. Check out the first, leave the rest.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rivera, Hoffman, and Saves

Mariano Rivera just broke the all-time saves record. By the end of his career, it'll be more like he smashed it, ground it into a fine powder, mixed it into his smoothie and drank it. I want so much to be able to refute all of the Yankees fans running around bragging about this. I want to be able to point out that Trevor Hoffman is still better or at least point to another closer. After all, the statistic has only been official since 1969. Surely there is someone else who is better. But there probably isn't.

I actually like Rivera. He goes about his business. Doesn't seems like an asshole or douchebag. I'm envious that the Yankees have had a solid closer for 15-odd years (except against the Red Sox, against whom he's blown the most saves, which is some solace). So instead of denigrating his achievement and, by proxy, the enthusiasm of Yankees fans, I'm going to denigrate the save statistic. It's the only way I can feel better about myself as the Red Sox have seen their Wild Card lead dwindle and the Yankees pull away.

But first, I can't help but try to poke some holes in Rivera's accomplishment even though it doesn't completely wash out. Rivera's numbers are, after all, slightly better than Hoffman's. I'll even forgive him for stealing another's entrance music (my entrance music would be Jeff Buckley's "Eternal Life", incidentally). However! Hoffman played for some pretty bad teams. Even though Hoffman, to this point, played more seasons than Rivera (he missed the 2003 season), his teams won a total of 1,243 games compared to the Yankees 1,460. Obviously, not every game the Yankees won had a save situation (same for the Padres), but I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that Rivera has had more opportunities to save games than Hoffman. In fact, over Rivera's career as closer, the Yankees have had less than 90 wins twice. Hoffman's teams have had more than 90 wins twice. What happens if Hoffman had played for the Yankees and Rivera for the Padres(/Brewers)? No way to tell. But their numbers are close enough that the argument could be turned around. The tipping point of the argument could be that as of June 29, 2009 Rivera hit 110 saves of more than one inning whereas Hoffman only had 55. Of course, that also increases the arguments for the likes of Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers.

But the save is a ridiculous stat to begin with. It's a way to value a closer, but with the advanced statistics that have been developed, there's no need for it to tell how good a pitcher is. Why not use WHIP (Walks + Hits/Inning Pitched), Strikeout to Walk ratios, ERA+ (adjusts ERA to player's ballpark), or WAR (Wins Above Replacement player)? Just look at the requirements to register a save:

  1. He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team;
  2. He is not the winning pitcher;
  3. He is credited with at least ⅓ of an inning pitched; and
  4. He satisfies one of the following conditions:
    1. He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning
    2. He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on baseat bat or on deck
    3. He pitches for at least three innings

"A lead of no more than three runs"? Are you kidding me? A good pitcher has an ERA of around 3.00.  That means he gives up about 3 runs for every nine inning game. So a closer shouldn't be expected to not give up three runs in one or two innings? That's ridiculous. Any major league pitcher should be able to hold a team scoreless for one inning most of the time. Additionally, I would expect closers to have lower ERAs than starters since they only pitch for one inning most of the time. Sure, it's generally a high pressure inning (though I'd argue that a three run lead in the 9th isn't exactly high pressure), but it's not like they have the same type of fatigue. And if they're doing their job, they're only throwing about 15-20 pitches.

Also, I person can get a save for pitching at least three innings. Even if the scoreboard looks like this?:

Condition 2 is really the only one that makes sense. If that seems strict... well it should be. If you want to compete at an elite level, then you've got to have higher standards

Monday, September 19, 2011

Another Nightmare Made Out of Clay

It's been a while since my last stop-motion video. This one is slightly more ambitious than the last, though it doesn't necessarily feel that way. I hope you enjoy!

Friday, September 16, 2011

By the Power of Greyskull!

I had the He-Man theme stuck in my head all night assembling this and it bled right into my dreams. I'm glad I can now be done with it and pass the magic to you. I think their is one clip missing, but I'm OK with that. Also, it's a little surprising how extreme some of these lessons are. They really drive the point home occasionally.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Top Five Worst "Weird Al" Songs

At the beginning of the year, I made a list of the songs I would choose were I trying to elucidate the merits and considerable talent of "Weird Al" Yankovic. My love of the man knows no bounds, but even he has made some clunkers. Generally, these fall into general categories that I'll get to below. It's important to note that four of my five selections come from the late-'90s and beyond and one of them was just before I entered my teen years. My theory is that the I hadn't been over-exposed to the music prior to that time yet, so I'm not so pained by the memory of it. It's definitely not to say that I think "Weird Al" isn't as good as he used to be because he's also recording some of his best stuff on these newer albums. If anything, I think his older albums fall more in the middle ground and his newer work plays on extremes of good and bad. Something else of interest, these are all straightforward parodies. I think he's at his best doing pastiches or originals.

Regardless, nothing the man can do will ever make me love him less. Onward!

Achy Breaky Song

This song suffers from a fairly common phenomenon in "Weird Al's" work which is that a very bad song is very popular and almost necessitates that he parody it. Al (I'm sure he wouldn't mind if I called him that, for brevity's sake) does the only thing he can with the parody and makes it an assault on the original, but the song is simply too terrible and, unlike with many of his parodies, I can't look past the original to see the parody even though I agree with pretty much every sentiment expressed. I'm just constantly thinking about the Achy Breaky Song he's complaining about. It's simply a case where the irony succumbs to the awful (he borders on this again with the Lady Gaga parody, "Perform This Way").

Canadian Idiot

Again, it's pretty bad song to begin with, but that's not the main issue with Canadian Idiot. I hate even saying this, but it's just lazy. Picking on Canada (even satirically) is like picking on New Jersey. At his best, "Weird Al" brings something surprising to common tropes or offers a bizarre, silly perspective. Here, it's just a million things we've heard before compiled into a song.

Pretty Fly for a Rabbi

I substituted this for Grapefruit Diet because I really dug the "Go Fatty!" line in GD. Plus, the chorus of this is incredibly irritating. Al's voice can be somewhat taxing for those not used to it and he really pushes the boundaries doing this Offspring parody. And again, it's well-trod territory set to a fairly crappy song. It's a recipe for disaster.

The Saga Begins

I feel a little bad putting this on hear because a friend chose it as a duet at karaoke one time. That was fun, but the song still isn't great. Look... "Weird Al" struck gold with "Yoda." The song does a great job of laying out the plot and satirizing Star Wars. But Al gets in a rut with these types of songs. "Ode to a Superhero" has the same problems. Many of them he records before the movies are released, so their just major plot points without having much in the way of cultural references. It's just not that interesting to listen to a plot recap, even in song form.

Trash Day

"Weird Al" usually nails rap parodies, but this one just bombs. The chorus is completely forced. "Rotten here" is just terrible. "A little bit of ick ick." Trash Day also goes nowhere. It's a problem of other songs where they amount to nothing more than a list of things, but this is slightly different. The song just riffs on the fact that there's a lot of trash in the house and that it needs to be cleaned, but "Weird Al" is much more imaginative when he gets expansive. Sure, he mentions that it's been weeks of buildup and probably will be weeks more, but he doesn't make us feel it. The song reeks of writing a song around a poorly conceived concept. "Hot 'n' here, hmm? Rotten here! Nailed it."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Intrigue, Sex, and Disaster (and Babe)

I've got some other posts in mind, but my list of movies is growing (I was home alone over Labor Day weekend an racked up few more than normal) so I don't want my roundup to get too daunting for me or you.

Shadow of a Doubt -- Alfred Hitchcock

S*P*Y*S -- Irvin Kershner
I love Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould has been growing on my ever since I saw The Long Goodbye, but S*P*Y*S is terrible. I flash to all the times I nearly blind-bought it because of the stars and rejoice that that money remained in my pocket. The biggest problem is that it's just not funny. Everything is forced and the chemistry between the two doesn't come through until the end. Kershner would go on to direct The Empire Strikes Back, so maybe he was working in a genre for which he didn't have a knack. Also, I can't help but think that since Gould and Sutherland starred in MASH and the TV show used the asterisks (M*A*S*H), that the producers were trying to remind the public of the connection by using the same format for this movie.

Angel Heart -- Alan Parker
Angel Heart has bit of a reputation amongst those who like genre movies. One might even call it a cult classic. Due to this, I had somewhat lofty expectations of this film that were no close to being met. Angel Heart is a drag. Mickey Rourke is a much better actor now that he's ugly and it's pretty clear that De Niro's performances started lacking long before the Analyze This/That movies. He's totally uninteresting and doesn't seem to give a damn about the movie (say what I will about Bang the Drum Slowly, but De Niro puts his all into that doofus). It doesn't work as horror and it doesn't work as noir. The most you're going to get out of it is seeing Lisa Bonet naked and Bill Cosby doesn't approve of that. Oh, and De Niro's name is Louis Cypher. Mull that over for a little.

Super Fly -- Gordon Parks Jr

Salon Kitty -- Tinto Brass
I hated Brass' Caligula and I only saw the 100 minute version. There's little to recommend about it. I don't know what about that experience made me feel like I should check out Salon Kitty other than the fact that I probably didn't notice that Brass directed it, but I dug it! Shocking. It helps that the story is pretty interesting: the Nazi's use brothel filled with specially selected women to try to discover traitors amongst their ranks. There's a healthy dose of male and female nudity, as one would expect with Brass, but the acting and story are all there. It's probably a bit longer than it needs to be, but definitely worth watching. Now I have to debate whether I should risk another Tinto Brass joint. Lord knows I've latched onto worse filmmakers (*cough* Jess Franco *cough*).

Teorema - Pier Paulo Pasolini
It wasn't intentional that two sexually focused movies arrived back-to-back. I'm usually pretty attentive to spreading out genres (unless I happen to be on a particular genre kick). It's probably that I didn't really recognize Teorema by the name and kept thinking it was Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro. The most surprising aspect of Teorema is that it's not really all that explicit. That may not mean much to some, but considering Pasolini would later make Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, I was expecting all kinds of deviance. As with much Pasolini, there's been a lot of criticism and study about this work, but I tend to use my first viewing as a time to enjoy (or try to) and if the film connects, then I'll revisit it. Unfortunately, I was basically bored by the film, so I didn't put the work into figuring it out. I'm OK with that. Incidentally, I didn't recognize Terence Stamp at all and it wasn't until his character was gone that I realized that was him. Maybe I should have been putting a little more effort into the film.

Babe -- Chris Noonan
My nearly 13-year old boy attitude necessitated that I reject the stupid movie with talking animals as girly child's stuff. Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey were making movies, damn it! I remember scoffing that it was nominated for so many Academy Awards. Such a jaded heart for such a young person. Having now watched the movie (mostly so I can watch the sequel, which my co-worker claims as one of his favorite movies ever), I've got to say: it's delightful! The set design is amazing and the talking animals are only cringe-worthy a couple times. The only real detriment to Babe are those damned mice. So annoying. The ending is epically heartwarming, though my sense of fair play tells me that Babe was a horrible sheep dog and should never have won. It's hardly fair using the secret sheep code to beat the competition. That said, I'm pleased that I can now use "That'll do pig" without feeling like a liar.

Femme Fatale -- Brian de Palma
When Femme Fatale came out in 2002, my only interest was in Rebecca Romijn(-Stamos at the time). It's a wonder why:

That trailer is fascinating because it pretty much show the whole movie in sequence, which is awesome since people always complain that trailers give away too much, but it's also kind of a behind the scenes look at how to assemble a trailer. Honestly, my main reason for watching Femme Fatale now is that I've been becoming and bigger and bigger de Palma fan ever since I watched The Phantom of the Paradise and I wanted to see if any of his later films held up to his early work (also, The AVClub's New Cult Canon feature). And I've got to say, the movie is pure, twisty, sexy fun. De Palma ramps the style way up, which used to be an issue I had with him, but have learned to love, he lets things get bananas. There is a Funny Games-esque moment that almost lost me in the end, but the movie is pure pulp that's impossible to resist even if Romijn(-Stamos) isn't always up to the line readings.

Earthquake -- Mark Robson
I went on a mini disaster movie binge over Labor Day weekend. I've gained a new appreciation for the '70s-style mayhem movie. Maybe it's the amazing model work, giant sets, and practical effects, but they speak to me. Earthquake isn't great, but it's pretty fun. My biggest issue with it is that I don't find Charlton Heston to be a very compelling actor. I've liked movies he's starred in (Planet of the Apes), but largely he comes off as a parody of action stars. Give me the awesome power of George Kennedy any day (and Earthquake does!). Two things stuck out to me during the credits: Mario Puzo (The Godfather) has a co-writing credit (!) and Richard Roundtree (Shaft!) is in it. The latter makes me particularly happy because it's nice to see people from exploitation movies get a moment or two in the sun. One of my favorite conventions of the genre is the thick-headed authority who doesn't listen to the people warning of disaster or actively pursues danger regardless of the endangerment to thousands of people, which is on full display in Earthquake, though they acquiesce a little faster than most. Also fun: Walter Matthau as a drunk in a bar. Proof that being small time comic relief is the safest position in a disaster. Surprisingly, the ending is fairly emotional and unexpected.

The Towering Inferno -- John Guillermin and Irwin Allen (action sequences)
It's a wonder what a great cast can do for a movie. Whereas Earthquake struggled over it's lead performance, Towering Inferno has Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in lead roles (who famously butted heads, seemingly mostly due to the latter being a dick). Newman is always so effortless and elevates every movie I've seen him in. The film also deals with a subject it's easy not to think about: how does one fight a fire in a high rise? I know people who used to hate being above the third floor in building just for that reason (it may have been higher). In fact, The Towering Inferno plays almost as a lecture against architects building skyscrapers. Much like in many of these movies, women are sort of relegated to the background, even Faye Dunaway, once the shit hits the fan. The film is 2.5 hours, but nearly always entertaining and it's fun to watch (in all of these disaster movies) the peril escalate. It also uses the classic "maiden voyage" setup where the Grand Opening is met with disaster. I love this scenario particularly because I love when one extreme emotion (in this case, joy) changes to another (plunging to terror) with no way for anyone to know it's going to happen.

Leviathan -- George Pan Cosmatos
I was expecting something a bit different judging by this poster:

However, I'm not unhappy with what I got. There's very little original about Leviathan. It plays like a mashup of The Thing, Alien, and The Abyss (with a touch of Jaws at the end). It's still fun as hell with some great special effects and a decent sense of terror. I'm quite surprised by the negative opinion of the film and I'm not really sure what people were expecting. There's not much more to say other than I think you all should check this out and get back to me with your thoughts.

The Poseidon Adventure -- Ronald Neame
This was supposed to be in the Earthquake position of my double feature with The Towering Inferno, but the disc from Netflix was cracked. So sad. I'd somehow forgotten that Gene Hackman was the star (and least sympathetic reverend ever) and put Ernest Borgnine in his place. As far as the disaster movies I watched this weekend go, this is the best. Even Shelley Winters is tolerable. Speaking of her: I mentioned above that women in these movies are usually told to stand aside as the men figured things out, but Winters is actually given something to do, which is much appreciated and is a great character moment for her. I also love seeing the grandpa from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in something else because he seems like a genuinely great guy. Incidentally, apparently Gene Wilder was to play the Red Buttons role but conflicts prevented him from doing so. That's a shame because I can see him being perfect in that role. It's also nice when a movie isn't afraid to kill of a few of it's main players since it so willingly kills off everyone else.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Tree of Life

I finally got around to watching Tree of Life even though it just entered its third week showing there. Its reputation preceded it more than any story elements. I knew there were dinosaurs. I knew people were walking out because they were bored. And I knew that it got a very mixed reaction at Cannes. Given that a coworker gives me a hard time for being (paraphrasing) "too plot reliant," I wasn't sure what to expect. I was watching a late show, so at the very least, I was hoping for some fun hallucinations brought on by fighting away the tired. Color me surprised. Not only did I stay awake threw the film (with ease, mind you), but it only started to drag a little towards the end and I found Tree of Life to be intensely emotionally resonant. That's not to say it's a perfect, but I'll get to that below.

The first thirty minutes (maybe longer) is very disjointed. There are glimpses of a family in the '50s(the O'Briens, though I can't recall if that's ever actually said in the film), modern day life, shots of deep space, the aforementioned dinosaurs, microscopic action, and eventually, a narrative forms of a fetus developing then a child and family growing. The first thing that struck me about all of this is the floating camera work, the editing, the use of wide lenses that seem to push the borders of fisheye, and one amazing shadow shot that I'm certain I've never seen anywhere before. There's an intense, ethereal quality about it all and while I don't think the images always cut together smoothly, there's a rhythm and grace to the whole thing that feels like something I've never experienced in a theater. To put forth an old and hackneyed phrase, it felt like the closest expression of "pure cinema" that I've ever encountered. The editing seemed like it was time to an unheard score (and given the use and importance of (classical) music in Tree of Life, I wouldn't be surprised it that was the case. Given the nature of the editing, I can't even imagine how Malick shot the film without having a new set up after five second shots (this film very clearly doesn't subscribe to the notion that a director's hand should not be seen, which is not a knock against the film).

Terrence Malick does a good job of uniting the thematically linked space/dinosaur stuff with the narrative through visual motifs, water being the most noticeable. It isn't much of a reach to justify the existence of these elements in the film. By the time the main narrative kicks in, I was kind of mesmerized by the imagery to the point where I looked at my watch and was stunned that an hour had passed already.

As Tree of Life continues, we follow Jim O'Brien (Brad Pitt) and his three sons and wife (mostly focusing on the eldest son). Here is where the film really sunk its hooks into me. Even though the floating camera gets a little tedious at times and the editing feels a little clunky because it's alway cutting between moving images that aren't really compatible, the way it's all put together draws a picture of one of the most accurate and naturalistic childhood's I've ever seen depicted. Nearly everything that happens when the boys are playing I've either done or know people that have done them. Shoot someone with a BB Gun because they let you? I know people who willingly threw darts at each other. Play in the mist of the DDT truck? I know people that used to ride their bikes in behind the truck while it misted. What's remarkable is how much gets communicated to the audience with almost no exposition. You get to see the idyllic childhood and the harsh father both and there is very little dialogue between characters. It's shown with actions and glances. When there is finally a moment between father and son when emotions are actually expressed, it's incredibly powerful.

Upon further reflection, the film is put together in the manner of memory. Bits and pieces flitting about. Incomplete pictures mixed together. Thinking of it now, it's quite obvious why that is, but there's a lot of mental work that goes into watching Tree of Life that it's easy to miss the obvious. The only time the film slows down is during the Sean Penn scenes and only partially because I really don't care for the guy as an actor (I'd say human as well, but I don't know him). It veers in a direction that was much harder for me to unpack, though having talked with my friend after, I think we made some progress on it.

Tree of Life is long and deliberate, but if you're willing to put the moderate amount of work into it (which really isn't that much), it's an immensely rewarding experience, emotionally and cinematically. Even though I have my issues with the way it was shot and the editing (and Sean Penn), the combine to make something unique. It's rare that I have such a positive physical reaction to a film (see the last time I wrote about a new movie in this space). It's authentic, beautiful, and challenging and should be seen in the theaters. At the very least, it will give you something to talk about.